Facial Reconstruction of a Prehistoric Man Whose Head Was Mounted on a Stake

By George Dvorsky on at

In 2011, Swedish archaeologists found human skulls that had been mounted on stakes at an 8,000-year-old burial site, representing a behaviour rarely seen among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. An incredible, computer-aided facial reconstruction finally puts a face to one of these skulls.

Swedish forensic artist Oscar Nilsson created this stunning reconstruction using a replica of the 8,000-year-old skull, which belonged to a Mesolithic man who died in his 50s. Using clues derived from both archaeology and genetics, Nilsson sought to create an accurate portrait of this prehistoric hunter-gatherer, whose head was mounted on a wooden stake after his death.

Facial reconstruction of the Kanaljorden skull. (Image: Oscar Nilsson)

Researchers from Stockholm University and the Cultural Heritage Foundation found the original skull, along with several others, in 2011 at the Kanaljorden site near the Motala Ström river. The remains of 10 people – nine adults and one infant – were found stacked atop a thick layer of large stones. All adult skulls exhibited signs of blunt force trauma prior to death, which may explain how they died. Some skulls, including the reconstructed skull, had evidence of past injuries that healed. No mandibles were found at the site.

Strangely, three adult male skulls displayed signs of sharp force trauma after death, in manner consistent with the skulls having been mounted to stakes. And indeed, one of the specimens still had a wooden stake sticking out of the cranium. This was an odd post-death ritual for hunter-gatherers and not something seen commonly until the Middle Ages.

Two years ago, Nilsson was contacted by the archaeologists to do the facial reconstruction. As Nilsson explained to Gizmodo, his first step was to scan the skull and generate a 3D replica.

Facial reconstruction of the Kanaljorden skull. (Image: Oscar Nilsson)

“I never work on the original,” he told Gizmodo. At the same time, however, he “wanted this man to be a real eye-catcher and unique in his individuality.”

In addition to the skull, Nilsson used evidence gleaned from the man’s DNA, including his haplogroup (which can indicate ancestry), as well as his hair, eye, and skin colour. The skull’s jaw was missing, requiring Nilsson to calculate its probable dimensions based on the skull, which he described as “challenging work.”

Nilsson relied on archaeological evidence in the form of jaws belonging to wild boar, elk, bear, badgers, and other animal remains found at the Kanaljorden site.

“My idea here is that these animals were very important to these people, like totems or spiritual animals,” Nilsson told Gizmodo. “This guy is connected with wild boar, he wears the skin from a wild boar, and his hairstyle is inspired from these animals,” he said, adding that this “is of course purely speculative, but such a specific and dramatic finding calls for a matching interpretation.”

Nilsson also added some white body paint to the man’s chest, a known practice among stone age peoples.

The reconstruction in progress. (Image: Oscar Nilsson)

As to why this man’s head was attached to a wooden stake, that remains an open question. Here’s what I wrote when I covered this discovery back in 2018:

As for the handling of the bodies after death and the mounting of heads on wooden stakes, that’s definitely weird. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers are not known to remove body parts like this; their grave sites show a respect for bodily integrity after death. That said, groups that appeared much later in history did decapitate their enemies, sometimes using the skulls of the vanquished as a trophy or warning. Historical examples include European colonists mounting the skulls of murdered indigenous peoples, or indigenous peoples using skulls in both burial rituals and as trophy displays. It’s not clear what the context was in this case. All we know is that, for whatever reason, these heads were mounted on the stakes, left there for a relatively short period of time, and then deliberately laid to rest in the shallow lakebed on the stones.

“The fact that two crania were mounted suggests that they have been on display, in the lake or elsewhere,” said [Stockholm University archaeologist Anna] Kjellström. In general, skulls without jaws were chosen for the display. “Since we did not find any sharp trauma showing active attempts to separate the lower jaw from the skulls, this indicates that the individuals much likely were buried in another place before the depositions... One interpretation could be that this is an alternative funeral act.”

More research will be needed for the scientists to reach a more definitive conclusion.

As for the new facial interpretation – which is exactly that, an interpretation – it’s providing us with a rare glimpse into the past, reminding us of the humanity of people who lived so long ago. It may not be perfect or wholly accurate, but this facial reconstruction succeeds because it better connects us to our past, even if that past was brutal at times.

Featured image: Oscar Nilsson/S. Gummesson et al., 2018